Welcome to this month’s edition of The Meridian Series where we explore the unique properties of each acupuncture channel in East Asian Medicine (EAM), plus the roles they play in our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. If you are new to this series, or have not heard about the meridians before, here is a little background before we dive into our next featured channel: The Spleen Meridian.
What Are the Meridians?
In East Asian Medicine, there are twelve main acupuncture meridians (also known as “channels”) that carry energy aka qi (pronounced “chee”) and blood to provide nourishment throughout the body. In a healthy person, the flow of these vital substances are freely moving in a state of dynamic equilibrium. However, when the flow of qi or blood becomes blocked in one or more of these channels from emotional stress, an injury, or illness — pain and other symptoms of disharmony manifest in the body.
Each meridian is associated with an organ system as well as a host of other natural phenomena since the foundations of East Asian Medicine were created on the basis of observing the human body as a microcosm of nature — from the elements (Metal, Air, Water, Fire, Earth), climate, shift of seasons, and more. After all, we are just as dynamic as these cosmic changes: our internal systems have their own rhythms and are always shifting towards homeostasis.
As we dwell in these next few winter months, Chinese Medicine’s wisdom encourages safeguarding our Spleen which is not just our digestive fire, but the source of creation for energy and blood and a keeper for our immune system.
In East Asian Medicine, the rhythms of the seasons have always been regarded as a way to understand the inner workings of the body. Before microscopes, blood samples, and x-rays, states of wellness vs. disease were compared to the forces of nature. Someone might have “too much fire” or an “accumulation of dampness.”
In the winter, it’s more common to see symptoms of cold, painful obstruction from Qi/blood stagnation, and wind-cold invasions from airborne pathogens. These phenomena garnered their weather-related names because as our external environment changes, in EAM we believe that our internal systems do too.
When it comes to the topic of this article, as the temperature cools down, so does the middle burner (the area that governs our digestive organs), and specifically, the energy of the Spleen.
In East Asian Medicine, a strong Spleen is the cornerstone to healthy digestion. Its Western roles include storing the blood and fighting infection. In EAM, the Spleen also shares similar functions to the pancreas, which releases insulin so the body’s cells can store glucose and convert it to energy. In our terms, we say the Spleen “cooks” our food: it warms and transforms food into qi (energy) and blood to promote everyday metabolic activities. For this reason, we call the Spleen the “Digestive Fire.” In TCM, we say the Spleen prefers a warm and dry environment to function properly.
As a yin organ, the Spleen is the first organ to receive food and drink when ingested. It acts as a sifting container, assimilating what we take in, separating the “pure qi” from the “impure qi” ie. what the body can use to make energy and blood versus any excess that is then passed along to the Stomach/Intestines to be digested further before being eliminated.
The same sifting function goes for what we take in energetically from our environment: the Spleen is one of the body’s first lines of defenses in maintaining our energetic boundaries.
Its assimilating role can be metaphysically seen in deciding what’s ours versus what belongs to others such as their energy, projections, wounding, opinions, etc. When the Spleen is overburdened, it’s not uncommon that the person with the deficiency also feels burdened by what they pick up from others – consciously or subconsciously carrying what doesn’t belong to them.
More on that below…
So, What Weakens the Spleen?
The Spleen’s digestive and energetic boundary-keeping capacities are taxed by:
- Chronic stress
- Worry (the emotion of the Spleen)
- Over-eating but also not eating enough
- Eating irregularly (hello, blood sugar mayhem)
- Excess physical and mental work without rest
- Frequent consumption of processed foods
- Frequent consumption of raw and cold foods
This last point, the negative impact cold and raw foods have on digestion, is one of the most surprising facts for clients to hear since, here in the West, salads, smoothies, and smoothie bowls are seen as the “go-to” for a quick healthy-meal fix.
However, those are not the only culprits behind a Spleen Qi deficiency. When consumed often enough, sushi, yogurt, cream cheese, ice cream, and most dairy (from cow’s milk) can be “dampening” to the digestive fire — depleting the Spleen’s energy and therefore its ability to transform food into qi and blood.
Here is an analogy…
Think about the Spleen like a pot on the stove. Let’s say the flame under the vessel of choice is burning as it should, and the contents you place in the pot (your food/drink) are warm or even room temperature. Naturally, they will break-down and cook more efficiently. Imagine if you placed cold or frozen food instead. It is going to take a lot more time and energy for it to do the same. In that sense, your Spleen is being taxed because it has to work harder to do the same job — and when you’re already running on low energy, dipping into reserves makes a deficiency harder to recover from.
This is not to say you should eliminate these foods from your diet, live your life, but moderate them if you feel called to.
If raw, cold, and processed foods are consistent staples without other “Spleen-friendly” foods (i.e., whole foods that are warm/cooked) AND you experience many of the symptoms I am about to share below, then (if we were working together) I would encourage talking about ways to strengthen the Spleen going forward.
Symptoms To Watch For:
When the Spleen has to work extra hard (aka use more qi than it produces) to transform food, it becomes tired leading to sluggish digestion which means poor circulation, nutrient absorption, and energy/blood production. This often leads to:
- Chronic fatigue
- Brain fog
- Chronic bloating
- Loose stools
- Poor appetite
- Indigestion, like food “just sits” there
- Muscle weakness and soreness
- Nutrient deficiencies
- A pale tongue with teeth marks on the edge
When weakened for long enough, the Spleen cannot produce the qi and blood needed to fuel the body. This malnourishment can lead to a blood deficiency (anemia), the accumulation of dampness (inflammation), while also negatively affecting the mind and spirit too.
A Deficient Spleen Can Mean A Disturbed Spirit
As you read, Worry is the emotion connected to a Spleen Deficiency. However, this imbalance not only affects the physical functioning (physiology) of the Spleen, but in the animation of the Spleen’s Spirit as well. What do I mean by Spirit?
In EAM, the Spirit of an organ is the most ethereal (non-tangible) expression of energy. You can think of it like a personality: each organ’s Spirit has a unique role and characteristics that come out when that organ is balanced or not. If imbalanced, we say the Spirit is vexed or disturbed.
The Spleen’s Spirit is called The Yi (“yee”). The Yi governs our thought, intellect, and comprehension; it influences our intention to pursue our goals as well as our creativity. Having a strong and clear intention (Yi) helps us to think clearly, process information, and create smart, structured plans, which makes our daily to-dos (and dreams) more attainable.
By this point, you know how a weak Spleen leads to poor digestion. Well on a spirit level, a weak Spleen disturbs the Yi, causing poor digestion of thoughts.
In other words, the Yi relies on physical nourishment derived from the Spleen to carry out its metaphysical functions. This is why a Spleen Deficiency can also manifest as mental and emotional disharmonies. Signs to look out for:
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- A “dampened” spirit: feeling lethargic, unmotivated, bored
- Obsessive/ruminating thoughts
- Creative blocks/lacking clear intention to move forward on a project
- Poor memory or concentration
- Insomnia (especially trouble falling asleep due to a racing mind)
- Feeling overwhelmed, vulnerable, and/or drained energetically
- Taking on too much — trouble compartmentalizing or delegating (think of a burdened Spleen or a damp Swamp — it soaks up everything with no outlet for flow, leading to festering, frustration, and worrying)
How To Strengthen Your Spleen Qi
As the temperature drops (especially during the winter months), here are a few ways to keep
your digestive fire stoked:
Skip the Ice
Whether it’s water or morning coffee, skip the ice — enjoy room temp or hot to promote circulation in your middle burner.
Try not adding ice and using only fresh (not frozen) items.
Balance Your Temps
Strive to have mostly warm and cooked foods while limiting raw and cold ones during the day.
Pair them with a cooked grain or protein to off-set the cold temp of the greens.The more whole (aka perishable) foods included the better.
Warm It Up
Warm up leftovers — avoid eating foods right from the refrigerator.
Make a hot tea with lemon and slices of fresh ginger and enjoy between meals daily if you can.
Ingredients: 1 pear, 1 lemon, 3-4 pieces of ginger root (sliced into 1″ pieces), honey to taste, (the more local, the better).
Instructions: Combine the sliced lemon, ginger root, and pear into a small pot. Add 4 cups of water (6 cups for a more diluted flavor). Bring to a boil and then simmer for 5 minutes. Serve and add honey to taste. Allow it to cool as needed and enjoy.
Note: This tea is meant to have a strong flavor, but if you want something more mild, reduce the ginger. If you have signs of internal “heat” aka prone to anger/irritability, yellow phlegm, fever, excess sweating, or hot flashes – ditch the ginger.
As the Earth Element, the Spleen is associated with the color orange in EAM. This is why seasonal root veggies such as sweet potato, butternut squash, and pumpkin are not just perfect for fall, but also for easy digestion. Prepare roasted on a sheet pan with some olive oil and seasoning of choice.
Avoid Blood Sugar Mayhem
Eat at regular intervals to avoid blood sugar crashes which can lead to poor appetite, anxiety, and hormone dysregulation.
Eat slowly and without distraction to enter “rest and digest” mode. This is when your GI tract can contract properly (peristalsis) to move food along — leaving you less bloated without food stagnation.
Regulates and improves digestion. When collaborating, you will also receive personalized and holistic guidance to treat the root cause behind why your Spleen’s Qi might be lagging in the first place.
Dr. Lauren Favreau is the Founder of Rune Acupuncture in New Gloucester, Maine where her approach to care can best be described as a merging of medicine and mysticism. Dr. Favreau addresses her client’s needs with a holistic and integrative approach. Her specialty lies in offering Acupuncture for emotional health and pain management, guiding patients towards a state where the body and mind are re-integrated, allowing one to reclaim the essence of who they are, as well as a more harmonized state of health. Book a session with Dr. Lauren through Rune Acupuncture or follow her on the ’gram for daily inspiration and wisdom.